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Self-consciousness and the camera

So you're having a bad hair day or you're squinting or you used to look better in that bikini... so what? Are you smiling?
Illustrative. Vintage family photos. (iStock)
Illustrative. Vintage family photos. (iStock)

I am a photobook designer and was working on my Instagram business account and I posted a beautiful photo of a girl with the most impish smile. She looked like she was up to something secretive and sneaky and all you could focus on was that devilish smile and you wished you knew what she was thinking.

I was looking for the perfect quote to go along with it and found one:

“Nothing you wear is more important than your smile.”

I thought to myself, now that’s exactly what I was trying to say with that photograph.

But as it turns out, I’m a bit of a hypocrite. While that *should* be the most important part of a photo, we all tend — myself included — to harp about every minute detail when it comes to photos of ourselves. We overanalyze every single aspect of them and often delete them so quickly because we don’t like the way we look in them.

I grew up in an age where cameras didn’t fit into our front or back pockets.  My father lugged his cumbersome camera around everywhere we went. He would gather all five of us, along with our mother, to pose at the zoo, the park, the waterfront, or the amusement park. We would line up and on three, we gave him our best smiles. There were no do-overs, no running over to him to see what the shot looked like, no self recriminations about not looking good in the picture, or how our hair looked funny, or how we looked just a bit chunky in that sweater. We had to wait a week or so before seeing the results of that photo. Sometimes the photos were great, but sometimes I was blinking, or my brother had turned his head at the last moment, or a random kid ran in front of the shot just as my dad clicked the button.

My dad would blow up the good ones and, instead of painting our family room, he wallpapered it with enough 8×10 photos of us that you couldn’t see the wall behind them. Those walls were famous in our community… Friends would come over and see which ones were switched out for newer ones and laughed like hyenas at the really embarrassing ones and it was like living in a photo gallery, only we five children were the only subjects.

In other words, there was no place to hide.

You looked good in some, not so good in others. And that was that. There was one specific photo that none of us kids really wanted on the wall and there was an ongoing prank that went on for years where one of us would quietly take it down and hide it and my parents had to track down the thief and put it back, only to have it taken down again the next day….

The camera is not always kind to us. I’ve noticed this more and more as I’m aging. It shows me as I am, without hiding my wrinkles, the dark circles under my eyes, the stray white hairs that are creeping along my hairline, and my not-so-flat stomach. But now with the ability to delete photo after photo at the touch of a finger, we are — inadvertantly — masking who we truly are.

Back then, before digital cameras, there was no delete button. Photos were more honest, more revealing of the truth of who we were. I just put together a photobook for a woman’s 50th birthday. The book was a surprise gift from her husband and her kids and when I finished it, I asked my artist/photographer daughter to look at it for her professional opinion. She barely focused on the layout, and instead was mesmerized by the old photos. They were scanned, but yellowed, and cracked, and the lighting was terrible, and some were blurry or had water marks on them, but she loved every single one of them. She marveled at the genuine smiles and the unadulterated honesty of the subject matter. I realized that she grew up in a different age, where most photos were carefully posed, carefully arranged, then touched up to erase any imperfections.

But life is filled with imperfections and that’s what makes us human. And I understood that that quote I chose was what truly matters when it comes to photos. It really doesn’t matter that much if you’re having a bad hair day, or if you were caught unawares and you’re squinting, or you could have sworn you looked better in your bikini when you looked in the mirror that morning, or that your husband took a photo of your “bad side”…. What really matters is the smile you’re wearing. When you’ve got a genuine smile on your face and you’re living in that moment and appreciating that moment for what it is, that’s what the camera will capture.

And that’s perfection in our imperfect lives.

About the Author
Chavi Feldman has a degree in graphic design and advertising and works primarily as a music teacher. She has lived in Israel for more than two decades.
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